When crafting the health care reforms that made up the Affordable Care Act, we focused on several important goals. We needed to slow the staggering growth of health care spending to make preventive and wellness care more central to our health system and to give Americans more control and better information as they make their own health decisions. The menu-labeling provisions we included in the ACA help to accomplish all of these goals. It is time to see these important reforms implemented in a meaningful way on behalf of American families.
A wealth of research shows that consumers make wiser health decisions when they have more information at their disposal. That is why, seven years before the ACA, we first introduced the MEAL Act, the common-sense menu-labeling provisions included in the final health care reform law. Under the legislation, fashioned with the input and support of both public health groups and the restaurant industry, fast-food chains or restaurants with 20 or more locations would be held to the same standard as companies producing packaged foods — they must clearly display the basic calorie content of their food choices on their menus, menu boards and drive-thru boards.
This menu-labeling requirement empowers Americans to make more informed decisions about the food they eat — which is all the more important given that families now eat out more than twice as often as they did in 1970. An estimated one-third of calories are now consumed — and almost half of total food dollars are now spent — at restaurants and eating establishments. Research shows that, where menu labeling has taken effect, people who saw the calorie information bought food with fewer calories.
Access to this nutrition information is more important than ever to our national health, well-being and economic future. Even as adult obesity has doubled in recent years, we have seen child obesity triple — to the point where 1 in every 3 children or adolescents in our nation is now overweight or obese. If we do not take action, the American Public Health Association estimates obesity-related costs could reach more than 20 percent of health care spending by 2018. Even worse, if this dangerous obesity epidemic continues, kids today may be the first generation in America to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
In short, menu labeling is a simple reform that ensures families finally have access to the information they need to stay healthy, even when eating outside the home. The single national standard provided by the law is also important, giving consumers consistent information from place to place as well as providing businesses with a uniform standard with which to comply. So it is no surprise that some large chains — such as Subway and McDonald’s — are following the new requirements and have already embraced these common-sense measures.
But a small minority of food industry participants, such as movie theaters, stores serving food for immediate consumption and some food chains, are now seeking to evade both the letter and the spirit of the law, even as the majority of restaurants and consumers have embraced it. Such loopholes would not only clearly undermine the purpose of menu labeling — to give consumers more information about the food they eat — but would also create an uneven playing field for business competition. And they are all the more reason why we need a strong rule and implementation of these menu-labeling requirements from the Department of Health and Human Services moving forward.
Just as consumers embraced the nutrition information on packaged foods when Congress mandated it more than 20 years ago, clear and upfront dietary and nutrition information at chain restaurants will help Americans eat and live healthier. But, to do that, we have to make sure the law is being followed.
Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro represents Connecticut’s 3rd District, and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin is an Iowa Democrat.